Wissot: Confessions of an obsessive-compulsive-disordered mind
It was very late at night when I went out on lint patrol. The kids were asleep. So was my wife.
I had all the time in the world to look for lint on the red shag carpet in the living room of our Champaign, Illinois, apartment. I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois, 26 years old, barely supporting my family on a graduate teaching assistantship, and worried to death that I wasn’t smart enough to complete the writing of my Ph.D. dissertation. The year was 1971.
Looking for lint in a shag carpet for hours on end is not a healthy way to manage anxiety. Seeking sexual pleasure as an outlet for overwhelming stress would have been a better bet. But that wasn’t my chosen coping mechanism.
After thoroughly combing the surface of the rug seeking to find more glaring examples of lint, I went into full frontal assault mode by using a flashlight to search for obscurely hidden fibers in a futile effort to rid the carpet of every last microscopic shred of thread.
Why was I doing that? I’m not entirely sure. Beaucoup bucks invested later in therapy only got me to the point where my malady could be clinically defined as obsessive-compulsive disorder. But the mere diagnosis of an illness is as helpful in remedying it as pointing out that the reason the Titanic sank was because it hit an iceberg. Thank you, Captain Obvious.
According to the Mayo Clinic, OCD, “features a pattern of unwanted thoughts and fears [obsessions] that lead you to do repetitive behaviors [compulsions].” The classic example in English literature is Lady MacBeth washing her hands incessantly, and crying, “Out, out damn spot” in a futile attempt to wash away the imagined blood on her hands, a symbolic recall of the many murders she and her husband committed.
Fortunately, I didn’t have blood on my hands, real or imagined. But the fear I felt caused me to seek refuge in compulsive behavior. The good news to this story is that three years later, my dissertation was accepted and I was awarded a Ph.D. The bad news is that 50 years later I still suffer from OCD and exhibit symptoms that range from the truly bizarre to the preposterously laughable.
Want an example? Happy to describe. We have a Keurig coffee maker both here in Vail and our place in Denver. After a cup is brewed, the water level understandably goes down.
A mentally sound person would wait until the water level had sunk low enough to prevent the brewing of the next cup of coffee. Not me. No siree. All I need to see is the water level drop a micro millimeter for me to grab a refill cup and dash into action like a Canadian Mountie rescuing a damsel in distress.
Wait. Not done. I have more of my mishegas to share. I find it impossible to ignore scratches on car doors, chips on counter tops, minute clothing stains, pictures hung ajar, visible towel tags, a food particle on someone’s lips, car tires touching the lines in a parking space, and public litter — wrappers, cups, napkins. I’m bitter about litter. I put my prior training on lint patrol to good use as I scarf up debris left outside my condo in Vail Village.
The crazy part of OCD is I am fully aware that what I am doing is bonkers, but still can’t refrain from doing it. If I were stranded on a deserted island desperately shooting off flares in a vain hope of being rescued, I would still lock my car’s doors (don’t ask me how I managed to get a car onto the island, please just focus on my neuroticism). The irony is that my extreme need for an irrational form of order is the source of my disorder.
I have often wondered what “unwanted thoughts and fears” are at the root of my obsessive behavior. On one level I know that I feel compelled to mindlessly act because the sight of a water droplet on a bathroom mirror is impossible for me to ignore. Easier to wipe the offending spot off than endure the discomfort of having the image of it dangling in my brain.
On a deeper level, I suspect these innocuous disturbances are mere symptoms of a more serious set of fears that I am unable to acknowledge. What might they be? At this point in my life, as I make a mad dash towards senility, anxieties around aging and death would probably be prime candidates. The truth is: I just don’t know.
What I do know is that people learn to live with mental angst as they do physical pain. Having a chronic illness or degenerative disease is terrible. But people manage to cope and soldier on. If they can, so can I, and I do.
I hope you understand that I have been making fun in this column of my own nuttiness and not people suffering from very serious mental illnesses like PTSD, bipolarism and schizophrenia. For them, what Joyce Carol Oates said of Marilyn Monroe during her delusion driven last days seems to apply: “She’s not a well girl. She’d be well, if she could.”
And if I have accomplished nothing more than cause you to feel better about yourself and conclude, “I thought I had a couple of screws loose, but this guy is bat crap crazy,” then all I can say is: You’re welcome.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.